Contaminated Land Awaits a Cleanup in Lsrael

Lots of sites that could be used for badly needed housing are too dangerous. But who’s going to pay the $2.5 billion bill to clean them up?

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Near the border between Tel Aviv and Givatayim sits is a large plot of land that has stood unused for 17 years. For nearly half a century until 1997, a plant belonging to state-owned Israel Military Industries operated on the 44-dunam (11-acre) site.

Normally, such a large chunk of government-owned land in such a sought-after area wouldn’t remain unsold and undeveloped for long. The problem is that the plant, named Magen, used hazardous materials like heavy metals and cyanide.

For years, most of the plant’s hazardous waste flowed untreated into cesspools at the site, contaminating the land and groundwater. The ruined soil had to be removed to the Ramat Hovav disposal site in the Negev, and wells in the area were closed.

But, ad hoc, hazardous waste was buried in pits at the site; the exact location is still unknown. To make matters worse, 14 years ago, the water authorities discovered high levels of pollution of the underground reservoirs caused by chemicals, some of them cancer-causing.

Some of these chemicals have leaked into the coastal aquifer. It’s impossible to do much with such badly poisoned land, even in the current red-hot property market.

The story of the IMI Magen plant, like that of IMI’s Sharon complex east of Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya, has received lots of media attention amid the government’s plans to sell the land for residential construction. But new research conducted for the Environmental Protection Ministry by LDD Advanced Technologies, a consulting firm that specializes in soil and groundwater issues, shows that much more land is probably contaminated.

All told, there are 23,100 potentially contaminated sites in Israel covering 4,069 dunams (1,005 acres), not including fuel pipelines. According to the report, the estimated cost for cleaning this up is 8.9 billion shekels ($2.5 billion).

Military bases, landfills and more

The worst offenders, both historically and today, are private businesses. The report says the private sector is responsible for about 3 billion shekels of the clean-up costs, almost one-third of the total, covering 1,168 dunams.

The second worst offender is the defense industry. Even though companies in this sector polluted just 365 dunams, they did much more damage, putting the cleanup cost at around 1.5 billion shekels.

Another major polluter is the military, which over the years has contaminated more than 1,000 dunams. Here the estimated price tag is 795 million shekels.

Other guilty sectors also have hefty estimated cleanup costs: landfills at 1.43 billion shekels, industrial settling and treatment ponds at 600 million shekels, gas stations at 556 million shekels, oil depots at 414 million shekels, fuel pipelines at 335 million shekels and refineries at 322 million shekels.

The survey was conducted as part of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s efforts to pass legislation banning land pollution and restoring whatever is contaminated. A bill gained traction in the Knesset in 2011 but has since gotten stuck.

The ministry hopes to bring the bill up for discussion in the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee after parliament reopens on October 26, but to do so all ministries involved must agree. Otherwise, the legislative process will restart from the very beginning.

If the bill reaches the committee quickly, it will be because officials realize that contamination is a main barrier to releasing available land for construction in the center of the country, says Shuli Nezer, a deputy director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry.

“It’s something the government will have to deal with if it wants to lead and create housing quickly and cheaply. Most of the main actors have understood this,” Nezer says. “The treasury has understood it, and we’re working with the [Finance Ministry’s] budgets division and the Government Companies Authority to complete the legislative process.”

Creative financing

If the bill passes, the costs for the government will be heavy too. The central government will be responsible for at least a quarter of the burden, or 2.3 billion shekels. State-owned companies will be responsible for another 1.1 billion shekels, and local authorities 1.4 billion shekels.

All told, the government will be responsible for 4.8 billion shekels, over half the total. Private entities will be responsible for 2.6 billion shekels, but there’s no address for the remaining 1.1 billion shekels. In these cases, the polluters no longer exist; for example, the companies might have gone bankrupt years ago. Or it’s simply not clear who’s responsible.

The secret to funding the cleanup is creative financing. An example is the IMI complex in Ramat Hasharon, where money from the sale of land for residential projects will cover the costs, Nezer says.

She says there’s a window of opportunity to decontaminate the polluted land. The two main ways are privatization and the sale of the contaminated land for construction, in which case the buyer must pay for the cleanup.

Another way is the military’s transfer of large bases to the Negev, which is expected to free up a land that is probably contaminated. This includes the Tel Hashomer, Tzrifin and Sirkin bases in the center of the country.

But Nezer says the ministry isn’t happy that an ad hoc solution has been found for each polluted site, so the ministry is keen to get the bill passed. Of course, there will be opposition to a law with such a steep price. To get the treasury on board, one idea is to spread out the government’s costs over 25 years.

But such a step would make it harder for the government to demand action from the private sector, which is demanding the same financing conditions as the state for implementing the law.